Garfield's got company: An estimated 60 percent of cats in America are clinically overweight.
"Similar to humans, it can cause diabetes, as well as osteoarthritis, since the joints and musculoskeletal system have to support and carry more weight," says Grace Mengel, service head at Penn Vet's Ryan Hospital Primary Care Service.
Mengel notes that extra poundage can cause a bounty of other problems, too, like inflammation that can lead to kidney and respiratory problems, as well as grooming issues, because the excess body fat makes it difficult for cats to reach certain areas. Overweight cats also often suffer emotionally, drowning in the sorrows of a decreased quality of life.
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What’s a fat cat owner to do?
"You need to create a lifestyle for the cat that helps it both lose weight and also be happy," says Carlo Siracusa, director of the small animal behavior medicine service at the University of Pennsylvania. "People always say cats are low-maintenance, but you can't deprive the cat from stimulation. Like a dog, you need to play with them, and you also need to allow them to display their natural behavior."
A worldwide system known as Body Condition Score (BCS) — essentially the pet version of BMI — is used to identify whether a cat is overweight or obese. Daily calorie requirements vary based on whether the cat is spayed/neutered, its activity level, age, health status, and ideal body weight. It's best to let a veterinarian assess the ideal daily caloric intake for your cat.
Caloric intake, however, is only part of a larger picture when it comes to putting a cat on a weight-loss plan. How you feed your cat might be just as important as how much you feed it.
"In nature, cats eat multiple meals throughout the day. They might eat 10, 11, 12 small prey throughout the day, whether it's a bird, rat, or other rodent," says Siracusa. "The cat is made to spend a lot of time hunting, to be alert and seek for food. When we feed a cat in a bowl once or twice a day, we're completely demolishing this pattern."
As a result, standard twice-a-day-feedings can really put the pounds on.
"It's a vicious cycle — you feed your cat once or twice daily in the bowl, and he doesn't have the opportunity to satisfy his normal behavior needs, which will make him more stressed and seek more food — hence why the cat might continue crying, even after just having eaten," says Siracusa. "Like humans, a lot of excessive eating in cats is caused by stress and anxiety."
Mimicking the hunt
In nature, cats outside are lively, constantly on the move and looking for prey, a feeding structure Siracusa urges cat owners to do their best to imitate at home.
Ideally, he suggests shifting to a four- to five-times-a-day feeding routine, providing small meals throughout the day.
"I'd encourage you not to give all of these meals in a bowl," Siracusa says. "You can use food toys where the cat has to work a little to get the food — transition to this little by little so that the cat doesn't get anxious by the immediate change."
Feeding mechanisms such as Doc & Phoebe's Indoor Hunting Feeder ($29.99 at docandphoebe.com) allow owners to hide food around the house and encourage cats to work for their meals. The design forces a cat to use its claws and teeth to get the food.
Not home during the day? Semiautomatic feeders enable owners to schedule portion-controlled meals, which are also helpful for nighttime feedings, when a cat might otherwise be meowing into your nightmares.
"Set up the feeders throughout the house so that the cat has to move to different corners of the house and look for the food," Siracusa recommends.
As owner Paul Caracciolo of Fishtown can attest, however, neither of those options will work if you have a bully in the house with a beta cat companion.
"Bear would clean up every single day while Kywi would have a few bites and practice self-control," Caracciolo says of his two kitties. "Poor Kywi wouldn't get that much food, while greedy Bear was over there getting borderline fat."
On the advice of his vet, Caracciolo started switching to a five-times-a-day feeding schedule, giving the cats much smaller, individual portions that they could each finish immediately.
Although it's too early in the trial to measure Bear's weight loss, Caracciolo notes he appears to be enjoying the change.
"Feeding is typically the highlight of Bear's day, so he's getting a bunch of small excitement throughout the day rather than just one or two moments of happiness," says Caracciolo.
Pre-scheduled feeders for multi-cat households exist, too, like the SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder ($139.99 at www.surepetcare.com). It uses microchip technology to dispense food at timed intervals to only those cats wearing a matching collar tag.
As for what to put in the feeders and toys, consult with your vet first to formulate a nutrition plan. He or she will consider a wide range of factors, such as whether your cat is spayed/neutered, which reduces cats' calorie requirements by up to 12 percent.
The vet will then determine total daily calorie guidelines, which should be used to manage portion control.
"As for wet versus dry, I recommend some of both if owners are up for it," says Mengel. "Canned food is often less calorie-dense than dry food, while dry kibble can also be nutritious and clean teeth or prevent tartar buildup."
Most important, invest in good-quality food. Corn, wheat, and rice are used as fillers in canned and dry cat foods, but cats by nature thrive on animal protein, so make sure carbohydrates like cornmeal aren't listed as the first ingredient.
Mengel recommends seeking out well-known brands with veterinary nutritionists on staff such as Hill's, Royal Canin, and Purina ProPlan. Annamaet, another recommended brand, is based in Telford.
"If I could do it all over again, I would've fed Sambuca quality food from the beginning," says West Philly cat owner Sarah Smith, whose kitty developed diabetes after growing to more than 20 pounds. "It's kind of like feeding a kid McDonald's their whole life and then you switch to Brussels sprouts and they hate it — I had to experiment a bunch. It took me a while to learn that Sambuca will never be a fan of beef-flavored anything."
As with humans, after altering diet, it's time to think about exercise. Siracusa says just five minutes of play per day can make a significant difference in a cat's life.
"People say cats aren't trainable, but with a little dedication, you can teach simple things like a paw high-five using treats," says Siracusa. "Just make sure you include treats in the daily calorie count."
All "hunt" activities are also prescribed, like attaching fake prey to a stick and moving it along the floor so your cat is prompted to stalk and pounce.
"If you don't have time for all of this, then maybe you should decide that the cat isn't the right animal for you," says Siracusa. "Like us, a happy cat needs some physical and sensory simulation, and, of course, attention and love."